Have you been arrested for a crime or are you a suspect in a crime? The criminal justice process varies from state to state, and the federal criminal justice system has its own rules, procedures, and terms for processing those accused of federal crimes. However, in many cases, the following outlines the general process involved when you are charged with a crime.
The criminal justice process starts with a complaint or information filed with the court by the prosecutor or a grand jury indictment. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that all federal felonies must be brought by a grand jury indictment but the states are not bound by this rule so they can use grand juries or not.
The arrest can occur at either the scene of a crime or based on warrants or sworn statements ordering a court appearance, typically after the complaint, information or grand jury indictment is filed. All arrests must be based on probable cause or a reasonable belief by an officer that an offense has been committed and the defendant may have committed the offense. The police must advise a defendant of his or her Miranda Rights in connection with making an arrest, taking the suspect into custody, and conducting a custodial questioning of the defendant. The Miranda rule requires the police to advise a suspect of his or her privilege against self-incrimination, the right to remain silent, and the right to have an attorney present during questioning if so desired.
At the Initial Appearance the defendant will be notified of the charges and given the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty. After entering a plea the defendant may also have their bail set or be released, or the judge may order the defendant held in jail until the trial.
An arraignment is the formal presentation of charges in open court and where a judge considers evidence the prosecutor presents to decide whether there is probable cause to support the charges against the defendant. The judge may downgrade or dismiss the charges and an arraignment may take place several days or weeks after the arrest, depending on the court calendars.
In many cases, the prosecutor and a defendant’s lawyer will negotiate a plea, also known as plea bargaining. In a plea bargain, the prosecutor may offer to reduce or dismiss some of the charges, or recommend a lighter sentence in return for a guilty plea.
If a plea agreement is not reached the defendant will have a trial. Defendants have a constitutional right in both the federal and state courts to a jury trial, but may waive this right and have a bench trial. In federal court a jury verdict must be unanimous while juries in state courts may have divided verdicts. The Supreme Court has not established a firm rule on how divided a jury may be, but it must be larger than just a simple majority to convict.
Once the case is submitted to the jury for deliberation, the jurors retire to deliberate in secret. When the jury reaches a verdict, their finding is read to the defendant in open court. In a bench trial the judge will deliberate as well, but normally a judge does not take as long as a jury to reach a verdict.
If the defendant is found guilty, the judge may set a future date for the defendant to be sentenced. In determining the sentence a judge may use a pre-sentence report which provides a uniform assessment of a defendant’s overall family, medical and criminal background. In most cases the judge decides on the sentence, but in some jurisdictions the sentence is decided by the jury, particularly for capital offenses. Possible sentences range from jail time, fines, time already served or probation.
After the trial a defendant may request appellate review of the conviction or sentence. In some cases defendants have a right to an appeal.
If a defendant is convicted they may go into some form of custody, either probation, jail or some other alternative. Probation means that the convicted felon does not go to prison but is allowed to return home, usually with some restrictions on what they can do and where they can go. Prison terms are typically served in a city or county jail if the sentence is for a year or less or in a state penitentiary if it is for more than a year.
Whether you were arrested at the crime scene, or after a complaint or a grand jury indictment was filed you should hire a criminal defense lawyer right away. If you are questioned, politely tell the law enforcement authorities or other person questioning you that you would like your lawyer present during questioning, and wait until you are provided one. This is your constitutional right.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified criminal charge lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact an attorney in your area from our directory to discuss your specific legal situation.